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Musicians who pushed the edges break out to make incredible collections

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In the age of the playlist, do albums mean anything to music fans? Here at the end of 2023, our colleagues at NPR Music argue that there are at least 50 reasons that the answer to that question is yes. And we're joined today by that team's pop critic and correspondent, Ann Powers, who's here to talk about what makes for a great album in 2023. Hi, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey. How are you doing?

FADEL: Pretty good. I'm excited to talk about music.

POWERS: (Laughter) Yes.

FADEL: So NPR Music's list suggests that in 2023, there may have been fewer huge, attention-grabbing albums that dominated the conversation. So where did the 50 best albums of 2023 come from?

POWERS: Well, yes, Leila, on the surface or at the top, we have albums that either came out in 2022, like SZA's "SOS," for example, or Taylor Swift's remake of her album "1989," which to my mind sort of does and doesn't count as a 2023 album. Those are the mainstream hits. But all throughout the music landscape, there are these artists who fit in a category that the critic Robert Christgau once called semi-popular. Or I like the phrase famous to a few. In other words, they're very popular among certain communities, niches, making certain styles of music. And as they push the edges of their particular subcultures or scenes, they make these incredible albums.

FADEL: Well, let's listen to some of these bright lights of 2023. Where do you want to start?

POWERS: Well, I want to start with an artist who's connected to what I think is the most inventive genre right now, that's R&B music. Her name is Amaarae. She grew up between the hip-hop capital of Atlanta, Ga., and Accra, Ghana. And she mixes in Afrobeats and some K-pop influences to her musical blend. She has this really captivating, unique voice. And she really takes chances on this album, which is called "Fountain Baby." Let's hear a little of her song "Co-Star."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CO-STAR")

AMAARAE: (Rapping) I met a girl, she a saint and a demon - two like Tia, two like Nina Sky. Me and her, it felt like threesomes, must be Gemini. She too nice and she too lethal - I would not advise.

POWERS: The songs on this record almost seem like fragments to some people, maybe. But each song takes Amaarae in a slightly different direction, and they add up to this really complicated sound world. It's a very rich album experience. She even has a punk rock track on here.

FADEL: So the next album that we're about to play that you have for us is a real swerve from that starting point, right?

POWERS: (Laughter) Yeah. Well, if Amaarae represents the cutting edge of R&B, the Irish band Lankum stands proud as the titans of a new traditional Irish music scene. This is an incredibly vibrant - with so many great artists. But Lankum, a band that's on its fourth album, is, you know, just at the height of its powers. And this is always such an exciting moment for an artist. This album, "False Lankum," blends some originals and many traditional songs performed in their way, which is a mix of kind of, like, almost metal-ish influences. I hear the Velvet Underground in what they do. It's very drone-y, but it also connects with the ancient folk traditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD ABORE AND MARY FLYNN")

LANKUM: (Singing) Lord Abore and Mary Flynn were both children young. They were scarcely 14 years of age.

FADEL: Wow, that's pretty.

POWERS: So here we have Lankum, you know, playing a beautiful trad ballad, like, "Lord Abore And Mary Flynn," in a way that brings out all of its beauty and also its spookiness, you know? I mean, they're breaking the box around traditional music, and that's super exciting.

FADEL: OK, so we're going from Irish folk/metal to music from somewhere you live, right?

POWERS: Yes, this is Joy Oladokun's great album "Proof Of Life," out of Nashville, Tenn. Joy is an artist whose music shows exactly how a niche or a scene is evolving. This album has guest spots from people like Chris Stapleton, you know, the king of cool country music. Or the rising folk rocker Noah Kahan is also on this album. And Joy is often classified as Americana, But, you know, listen to her voice and listen to how she puts so many elements together in these airtight, completely, you know, perfectly constructed songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY LIKE ME")

JOY OLADOKUN: (Singing) Can anybody say a prayer? Can anybody light a candle for somebody like me? Ooh. It's the least that God could do for giving more than He could handle to somebody like me, ooh, somebody like me.

FADEL: Love that.

POWERS: These songs are so - they're anthemic yet vulnerable. They're just what we need. And I just want to say, if John Mayer can be a huge star, let's make Joy Oladokun the next John Mayer.

(LAUGHTER)

POWERS: The next enduring star.

FADEL: I love that you're taking us into these genres. I mean, there's music that I wouldn't have otherwise known to even listen to. But of course, there are the top of the charts. Is there anything on this best of 2023 list that's just pure pop?

POWERS: Yes, there is. But even the big pop albums this year connect to subcultures or, you know, communities that are very identifiable. Let's talk about Olivia Rodrigo, maybe the biggest new pop star of the decade. And she sounds like a particular kind of rocker. Her album "GUTS" connects very strongly with pop punk or emo music, and this record claims that space, which very often belonged to young dudes, young guys for her, a young woman who is speaking back to sexism and to just, you know, being treated like trash by trashy boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET HIM BACK!")

OLIVIA RODRIGO: (Singing) I wanna get him back. I wanna make him really jealous, wanna make him feel bad. Oh, I wanna get him back, 'cause then again, I really miss him and it makes me real sad. Oh, I want sweet revenge, and I want him again.

POWERS: You know, like so many young pop stars, Olivia started out as a Disney star. But she's different than somebody like Miley Cyrus, who had to fight to show her rock side. And she's found huge success by reclaiming or, you know, just claiming this style for herself. And I absolutely love it. I love the fact that young women are ruling rock right now, and Olivia is right at the top.

FADEL: I love ending the conversation on that note, on women ruling rock. NPR pop critic and correspondent Ann Powers. Thanks so much, Ann.

POWERS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET HIM BACK!")

RODRIGO: (Singing) I wanna get him back. I wanna make him really jealous, wanna make him feel bad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.